‘TIME, A SIMPLE THING, CONSIDERED AS…’
So, like it or not, we’re stuck in this time-stuff like journalists embedded in a war-zone. We get no choice in it. We don’t understand it. But our lives are subject to its laws, from beginning… to end. Some speculate about the ‘Big Bang’, and about what preceded it. Seems to me there’s some basic glitch in their reasoning. According to the very wonderful Albert Einstein, space-time is interconnected, they’re aspects of one another. So matter did not exist before time. And time did not exist before matter. Time came into being woven into the structure of matter. It’s an integral aspect of life, the universe and everything. There was nothing prior to the Big Bang, not even time. So the idea of ‘before’ itself is a nonsense. As Albert said, and he should know. But I’m getting sidetracked already…
James Ussher, diligent seventeenth-century Archbishop Of Armagh and Primate Of All Ireland, famously totted-up all the dates in the Bible to conclude creation was six-thousand years old. That it came into being at around nightfall – 9pm or thereabouts, preceding the Sunday of 23 October 4004BC. That’s not a very long period of time, in what we term historic or prehistoric terms. What it presupposes it that the world, and everything else was created in exactly the form it is now. That it is essentially unchanged, and unchanging. Bishop Ussher was not exactly unique in assuming this. For the most part of human existence on this planet, time was not something invested with the significance we now attach to it. People in ancient civilizations lived in a state of perpetual now-ness. Of course, those nomadic peoples on their flat-Earth world beneath a closed dome of finite sky across which the Moon and the Sun criss-crossed on their regular paths, they had their creation myths. They were sufficiently curious, and poetically imaginative enough to conjure up some engaging fantasies. Bizarrely, some claim still to adhere to those antique myth-systems as a kind of spiritual litmus-paper test of their religious beliefs. But those ancients were as embedded in time as we are, they aged and died like we do, they were aware of the passing of dynasties, of old-time heroes and legendary military campaigns. They were even surrounded by the monolithic remains of earlier civilizations. What they didn’t have was any concept of historical progression. The past was no better and no worse than the present. The future would be no better or worse, or significantly different to the present. People came and people went, but the world they moved through remained essentially the same. In fact, for your average peasant, life didn’t change in its essential details – tied to the cycle of seasons, for thousands of years. For some people alive today, it’s still pretty much like that.
Many worlds of Fantasy Fiction continue to exist within that continuum. It’s a useful and popular story-telling device. But that’s what distinguishes it from science fiction. Can science fiction exist without science? Without awareness of scientific methodology? Without an appreciation of space-time…? I think not. This is what differentiates us.
Events frequently have unintended consequences. It could be argued that it was the industrial revolution that rendered the slave-trade obsolete, when capitalism twigged that machines are faster, more efficient and cheaper than forced human labour. Darwin – and I concede there were pre-Darwin and simultaneous Darwinian-type thinkers around, but for the sake of this diatribe we’ll leave it at Darwin. And yes, he ripped the roof off pretty-much everything. The apes-into-human bit, obviously. But it alters our relationship with time too. People, and bipeds that look a lot like people, have been around for, not thousands, but millions of years. While the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, the cosmos, are suddenly calculated in billions, not millions of years. It expands the scope, and introduces changes. The obvious corollary is to switch that perspective around. If the past is not like the present, the future will be equally unlike the present. Tomorrow will be different. The day after tomorrow will be differenter. The past is still springing surprises, still being fine-tuned and redrawn. But if our species and subspecies have been around millions of years, just possibly we’ll be around a few million more. If we can survive the current unsustainable population-bump through pandemic or ecological armageddon, and reemerge at something resembling medieval population-levels, with current technology intact, the potential is endless. Until we gradually shift into something else.
And if the Earth has been around billions of years since its fiery birth, chances are it’ll be around, in some form or another, for billions more, until it eventually ceases to be. A fairly obvious conclusion, to us, now. But a perception that’s different to Bishop Ussher’s fixed static world-view. And a step-change in human consciousness from what came before. An awareness that ripples out and alters with unintended consequences. It shocks the documentation of history out of this-happened then this-happened then this-happened into a structured narrative that starts way down there in messy unhygienic primitivism and inexorably climbs up to whatever cultural pinnacles we now enjoy. Relativistic issues may gnaw at that certainty every now and then, but some things are inescapable. Read this online. Now argue that’s not progress. Yet narratives are not fixed. They involve plot developments, with chapters as-yet unwritten. They also imply a dénouement.
There could be no ancient Roman or classical Greek science fiction, because they did not possess this sense of time as something infinitely malleable. Homer and Virgil schemed tales of epic journeys to fantastic realms which are easily adaptable to a kind of SF-mindset. They are fantasy, with story-telling devices that have been subsumed into SF. But they are not SF.
And human’s being a naturally inquisitive organism, just as desert nomads once dreamed creation-myths from the dance of campfires beneath the stars, so there’s no way they’re not going to populate that immensity of future-centuries with new ideas, with playful half-fantasy, half-speculation. Jules Verne was writing about dinosaurs and evolutionary proto-humans in ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’ (1964) even as, simultaneously, the Darwinian dialogue was still hot hot hot. We forget just how innovative that was. Then HG Wells transported his Time Traveller forward to the very end of old Earth’s story, to its bleak cold extinction days, in prose that still shocks chills of frisson through the frontal lobes. These concepts open up the scale of what is possible. This is no small thing. This is a big deal. That science fiction was a trashy academically-disreputable genre that rapidly became associated with cheap bug-eyed monsters in garish pulp-magazines doesn’t detract from the fact that the SF community was the first to think of us as one global tribe – we are Earthlings. One species, beyond national boundaries.
From its very beginnings, writers have never ducked the opportunity of projecting their visions to the end of time. Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The City And The Stars’ (1956) envisions a single eternal city on an otherwise dead planet. Michael Moorcock’s ‘Dancers At The End Of Time’ (1972-1976) novel-series has decadent humans with techno-supernatural powers cavorting and partying into eternity. Jack Vance’s ‘The Dying Earth’ (1950, and on) has the Earth awaiting the Sun’s death as cunning and intrigue continue their devious eccentric way towards oblivion. Against all the evidence these fictions suggest the human form will survive the passage of millions of years largely unchanged. Others are not so restrained. Brian Aldiss’ brain-expanding end-of-time ‘Hothouse’ (1962) is populated by squat lemur-like humans lost in a vast tropical rainforest world of a single Banyan tree. Stephen Baxter has it both ways. In his ‘Evolution’ (2002) humans change and devolve into a bleak arid Mars-like world 500-million years ahead, while an alternate parallel-future diverges into “The Children Of Time”, a Baxter spin-off that appeared in ‘Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine’ (July 2005), and later in the Mike Ashley-edited ‘The Mammoth Book Of Apocalyptic SF’ (Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2010). This related story-strand insists humans will stay human. Until there are no more humans. Still elsewhere, the Asimov and ‘Star Trek’ tomorrows suggest human manifest destiny is to expand out across the stars and colonise the thronging galaxy. Others look at the distance of the stars, and turn away. No, we are here to stay. One planet. One solar system. Fact is, we don’t know. We can guess. It’s all up for grabs. But our guesses are restrained by the now-ness of this time-stuff we’re embedded in.
There’s a beautifully absurd sequence in HG Wells’ tale filmed by Alexander Korda into ‘Things To Come’ (1936), in which a fleet of vast propeller-driven flying-machines appear over devastated post-war Europe. It’s a stunning steam-punk image as outmoded by subsequent events as our imaginings will soon be reconfigured and junked by what happens tomorrow. My story ‘The New Flesh’ in the current issue of ‘Jupiter’ takes a light-touch look at species origins, and at future evolutions, while caught up in the midst of eco-catastrophe. It’s a work of fiction, but everything here has gone into it. That’s what makes SF unique.